In Gujarat, again a Modi referendum

Gujarat Assembly elections started receiving national media attention in 2002. The coverage has continued to increase in every election since then. It has now reached a level that can only be termed over the top even in politics-obsessed India. Much has been made of all leading lights of the Union government and those state governments of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) laying siege to the poll-bound state. But virtually all print and electronic media stars have para-dropped to offer their “in-depth” take after spending some hours in some select pockets. Doubtless more of it is in store in the days before the last votes are cast on December 14.

Gujarat pre-election analyses have followed a set template. Pundits say early indications could mean a difficult situation for the government, following it up by predicting on election-eve a tight contest which could go either way, with, of course, pointed reference to anti-incumbency coming into play. In reality, the BJP sailed through all these polls with almost half the votes and 60 per cent or more of the seats.

This year’s election scene is different in two aspects. First, the coverage is far more intense (but the tenor of the analysis is much the same), with the clear undertone of disruptions caused earlier by demonetisation and recently by the goods and services tax (GST), possibly souring the outcome for the BJP. The growing proximity of the putative leaders of the patidar agitation, the kshatriya community and the Dalits to the Congress has led to speculation about whether the grievances of these electorally significant communities would possibly impact adversely on the fortunes of the party that has enjoyed power in the state for the last 22 years. Pronouncements based on cherry-picking of anecdotal evidence and often projecting the analysts’ own predilections are rife.

The second major difference is Narendra Modi’s move to the national stage. He may not be in Gujarat physically most of the time, but through his visits (plenty frequently) and remote-control grip over local politics (again plenty powerful), he looms larger than ever over the entire state from the arid northern expanse of Kutch to the southern riverine plains. Some pundits believe that this may not sway the voters sufficiently this time. They cite the concentration of the BJP firepower in support of their surmise. Some of them even see this as a sign of nerves, if not panic, in the BJP ranks.

That can be quickly countered. The BJP is always in the campaign mode. It takes all elections seriously, even when out of power, and throws in the kitchen sink into its all-too-energetic canvassing. As its resources, such as the states it rules, have grown, so has its deployment of these. That is in sharp contrast to the Congress, the field force of which comprises almost entirely of its president-forever-in-waiting, Rahul Gandhi. Its other generals are content to fight the battles in the backrooms. 

Will the economic factors matter in this election? The obvious disruptions of demonetisation did not deter the Uttar Pradesh voters to choose the BJP in its immediate aftermath. In Gujarat, the impact was much less even a year ago, thanks to the Gujarati genius of devising effective coping strategies. The notebandi now is a distant memory, done and dusted. Even the initial adverse effects of the GST are now accepted with equanimity, as reported in this paper (“GST tweaks help restore BJP’s edge,” November 29). P Chidambaram, no friend of the Modi government, thanked the Gujarat voters for bringing about the latest adjustments and simplifications. Promises of the finance minister and the finance secretary to do more as needed would surely further soothe those at the receiving end, traders and small manufacturers. For most voters, the aam aadmi and aurat, the GST was and will continue to remain a non-issue, since it has not really hurt their pocketbook.

The noted sociologist and former vice-chancellor of the Sardar Patel University, Pravin Patel, whose study of the patidars is considered authoritative, says that in Gujarat, kinship groups are the dominant persuaders, rather than castes. That would explain the limited domains of influence enjoyed by leaders such as Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor even among their caste groups. The patidars of central Gujarat, for example, have remained relatively aloof from the reservation agitation.

This does not mean that Gujarat has no problems; indeed it has and quite obvious ones. Grievances, especially in villages, are real, but have not yet reached the stage that will cost the BJP dear. The general perception is that Gujarat has prospered ahead of the country. Any criticism of it is not taken lightly. People readily credit the BJP and emphatically Mr Modi for this.

That brings us to the main, if not the sole, issue of this election: Mr Modi, once again and even more so. Gujarat will again hold a referendum, as it effectively did in 2012 (see “The Gujarat referendum,” Business Standard, December 18, 2012).  This time around, the party leaders, including Mr Modi, make no bones about it. The message delivered now is that state needs to back Mr Modi in Gujarat and in Delhi to protect and continue with its progress. In the latest round of rallies, the prime minister conveyed as much. Trust him (and others) to do this even more loudly and clearly in the remaining days of the campaign. The Congress has greatly facilitated this through Rahul Gandhi’s personal attacks on Mr Modi, as it had done in 2007 with the maut ka saudagar remarks.

Dhanjibhai Patel, 70, a first-time BJP candidate from Wadhavan in Saurashtra, a Jain-dominated constituency, concludes all his village meetings saying, “This is a direct fight between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi,” and the audience roars its choice of the winner. The formal outcome of the contest will be known on December 18. Be prepared for history repeating itself, possibly even more forcefully.

The writer is a long-time resident of Vadodara, Ahmedabad, and Anand

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